Foreign soccer players’ abilities to speak English (while playing for teams in English-speaking countries) varies from impressive to amusing, but how much do they really need to know?
Some players have successfully mastered multiple tongues, including English, while others require interpreters on the training pitch. How do certain players get so good? And is it true that the physical language of soccer is all a player needs, or are good verbal skills an indispensable asset?
Peter Schmeichel, voted one of the greatest living goal-keepers, has a phenomenal grasp of English, and even speaks with a Manchester accent (of the club for which he played between 1991 and 1999).
There are many reasons why Schmeichel might be so proficient, first that English is taught with great enthusiasm and from a young age in Scandinavian countries. As Peter Gratale wrote on pinetribe.com, the children of Denmark often start learning English long before English or American students begin any foreign language lessons. In addition, a great deal of Danish media, television in particular, is in English.
As a result, someone like Peter Schmeichel who wished to pursue a career in the UK would have good grounding in the language from which to develop fluency. This is not to belittle the work Schmeichel has undertaken to refine his speech, in keeping with the effort he puts into developing his soccer skills.
With his unstoppable combination of stature and skill, it’s unlikely a lack of English would encumber Schmeichel in a game of intuition. But however he came to mastery, one of the main benefits of Schmeichel’s proficient English for his career is his ability to share his knowledge with a wider audience.
In an interview with expressandstar.com, this Wolverhampton player described how in 12 months he grew his English skills from nothing to a point where he could act as translator for other players. The British Council described how Zubar was among a group of Wolverhampton players who visited classes of young people who spoke English as a second language. These players helped to motivate the class in soccer-related lessons, and probably benefited from the language-learning environment themselves.
The important part of Zubar’s story is that now he can help others to develop their English skills, and he has personal experience in how to improve quickly. His experience seems to suggest that it is advantageous to learn English, if only to be part of the a team whose members can understand each other. This understanding happens through an indirect process in which new members are nurtured in English and interpreted by bilingual players like himself.
In the above video, Agüero clearly has difficultly expressing more complicated soccer topics in English without the aid of an interpreter. However, he is also one of the top players in the Manchester City squad, having scored 75 goals in total. A great deal of his success can be attributed to personal skill and focus, but it would not be possible without proper communication with his teammates.
As Paul Mark Pedersen and others explained in their book Strategic Sport Communication, sport players express a great deal to each other via gestures and body language during play. This is especially useful when the crowd and other sources of noise make hearing one another on the field very difficult.
Agüero doesn’t need to be an expert linguist to win a game in which the team communicates through gestures, but common language helps team-building on and off the field. Agüero speaks a level of English sufficient to discuss a bit of soccer, and that level seems crucial to his functioning as a useful part of the team. Though he can get by with what he knows, teamwork might be simpler if he were to broaden his ability and make speaking English second nature rather than a challenge.
Tevez, though a talented player, can only just survive interviews like this one. Clearly he plays well without detailed knowledge of English, but a court case last year suggested a deeper understanding of the language might have saved him a lot of money.
As TheGuardian.com reported, Tevez did not attend a police station to produce the proper documents when he was accused of speeding. This, his legal team claimed, was because he did not understand the word ‘constabulary’ as used in police letters.
This story demonstrates how, when staying in a foreign country for long periods, even if your aim is just to play soccer, it’s worth expanding your vocabulary to include some technical words. Even though Tevez could play soccer, he found it difficult to communicate outside the pitch, which proved costly.
Verbal Skills Are Not Essential, but Helpful
Overall, these soccer players show how it’s possible to get by on an English-speaking team with only a minimal grasp of the language. Ultimately, each team develops its own means of communication that relies on a combination of words, gesture, and intuition.
However, the soccer players’ stories suggest that developing verbal skills creates opportunities for team-building and public outreach. In some cases, we see how knowledge of the host language is key to keeping players out of trouble. It’s not essential to learn the native tongue, but it can make soccer players better players, teammates, and citizens.
Got any stories about friends who are prodigious speakers of foreign tongues, or moments when you were caught out like Tevez, not really knowing how to say what you wanted? Tell us in the comments. Or if you’re looking for English courses, check out our packages here.